Coronavirus: Myths about the virus busted

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, authorities are rushing to dispel myths about the disease spreading online.

2019-nCoV emerged in southern China in December, but in the last few weeks has spread to other countries and begun killing people. 

Having started in a country with little media freedom and a history of covering up the spread of infectious diseases - such as the closely-related SARS virus from 2002/3 - it's not surprising people have rushed to fill the perceived information gap with half-truths and false information.

Here's what's true and what isn't.

The virus jumped to humans via bat soup 

Genetic testing has suggested the virus, like SARS, jumped from humans from bats (perhaps via snakes, according to one study). 

A video that did the rounds online last week supposedly showing a woman eating bat soup in outbreak epicentre Wuhan, despite the outbreak, was held up as proof. Critics noted at the time there was nothing to suggest the video was legit, particularly as the woman was wearing summer clothing at a time when Wuhan was experiencing near-zero winter temperatures.

Wang Mengyun eats bat soup in Palau.
Wang Mengyun eats bat soup in Palau. Photo credit: Wang Mengyun

It's since emerged the video was shot four years ago in Palau.

"It was turned over by some accounts sponging of the heat and fanning out malicious panic," travel writer Wang Mengyun - the woman in the clip - wrote in a blog post.

While it's believed the virus made the leap from animals to humans in a food market in Wuhan, it's not yet clear exactly where it happened, or how. It took several years to trace the origin of the SARS virus to a remote cave

You can get the virus from eating noodles, fortune cookies and Red Bull

A social media post claiming the virus can be caught by eating food from China, or popular with Chinese communities, prompted Australian health authorities to issue a rebuttal.

The badly-spelled post claimed the disease was "starting to spread in the greater Sydney region" and products such as rice, Mi Goreng noodles, ice tea, Red Bull, onion rings and wagyu beef were infected with "corona's virus".

The post cited the fake 'The Bureau of Diseasology Parramatta', claiming air tests showed the virus was circulating at train stations.

A spokesperson for NSW Health - which definitely exists - said nothing in the post was true.

"NSW Health has been made aware of a social media post that is being widely circulated warning people to not consume certain foods or visit certain locations in Sydney," a spokesperson told AFP.

"This post has not originated from NSW health or any entity relating to us. Further, there is no such entity as the 'Department of Diseasology Parramatta'. NSW Health would like to assure the community that the locations mentioned in this post pose no risk to visitors, and there have been no 'positive readings' at train stations."

None of items mentioned in the post have been recalled by the NSW Food Authority either. 

Horror author Stephen King, author of epic virus novel The Stand.
Horror author Stephen King, author of epic virus novel The Stand. Photo credit: Getty

The virus was created in a lab and patented in 2015

Some conspiracy theorists have put a Stephen King spin on the virus' origin story. They claim, much like in the horror author's epic novel The Stand, 2019-nCoV was engineered in a lab. One, who also claims you can cure virus by drinking a bleach solution (more on that below), suggested a UK research institute funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is behind it. Their motive? Money of course, as nations rush to buy the inevitable vaccine, which they claim will only spread the disease further.

The UK-based facility singled out, Pirbright, decried the "misinformation" in a post on its site. It said not only does it have nothing to do with studying human coronavirus strains, the patent cited by the conspiracy theorists was in relation to a vaccine it is working on to "prevent respiratory diseases in birds and other animals", and was not funded by the Gates Foundation.

Fact-checking site Snopes says the confusion - assuming it's not deliberate misinformation - appears to stem from the word 'coronavirus', which has become synonymous with the current outbreak despite being a family with many members - SARS was one, for example.

"Social media users sharing what they believe to be patents for the new virus, a member of the coronavirus family, are in fact sharing separate patents for avian infectious bronchitis virus and SARS," Snopes said.

Fake news sites like InfoWars have also claimed the Gates eerily predicted 65 million deaths by coronavirus just three months ago. The truth is a simulation run by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Gates Foundation in October suggested it was possible an outbreak could kill that many people, "but we explicitly stated that it was not a prediction", John Hopkins said.

"Instead, the exercise served to highlight preparedness and response challenges that would likely arise in a very severe pandemic... Although our tabletop exercise included a mock novel coronavirus, the inputs we used for modeling the potential impact of that fictional virus are not similar to [2019-nCoV]."

Miracle Mineral Solution.
Miracle Mineral Solution. Photo credit: USFDA

Unorthodox cures 

A bleach solution known to fraudsters as 'Miracle Mineral Solution' has been touted as a cure for 2019-nCoV. Jordan Sather - the guy above who claimed the virus was patented in 2015, and also a believer in the bizarre debunked QAnon conspiracy mega-theory - told followers to use it.

"I'm going to have to get home, and MMS the whole state," he said in a video. "MMS the whole shit out of everything." 

As did another QAnon account known as @chiefpolice2, who has nearly 18,000 followers on Twitter.

"PROTECT YOURSELF. Get the 20-20-20 spray," he told followers, calling the virus part of an "evil depopulation agenda" that will only escalate when the vaccine is released.

Sather pointed to a 2005 study which showed the SARS virus could be killed by the key ingredient found in MMS, chlorine dioxide - but failed to mention that study only looked at its effects outside the body, not inside it. Coronavirus is also not the same as SARS.

Genesis Church, the scammers behind the 20-20-20 spray, claim it can cure not just coronavirus, but also cancer, arthritis, diabetes and autism. 

University of Waikato senior lecturer of biological sciences Dr Alison Campbell told Newshub last year MMS is an effective killer - and that's what makes it useless for treating disease.

"One of the myths pushed by MMS sellers is that it's selective - they like to say that it kills off 'bad' bacteria and leaves the good ones alone. However, chlorine dioxide is unselective in its action."

And University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles told Newshub it's "bullshit".

Journalist Mike Rothschild, who's been tracking the QAnon craze, told US news site the Daily Beast it's likely the QAnon accounts were just trying to make money off the gullible.

"It's lucrative. You can sell this stuff to people and make a mint off of it... I don't understand how people who promote this stuff can sleep at night."